To win the British Open, the oldest championship in all of golf, you have to be a steely old bastard and also a wise one. You have to be able to read wind direction with your nose, know the difference between a brown green and a green one, figure out the humps and hollows of old, bony fairways. You must have enough experience in seaside golf, and in life itself, to accept the unholy bounces that will take your good shots and hurl them into the hay. You must already be a winner of great tournaments, an internationalist. You must be Ben Hogan or, as he is dead, Tiger Woods or Vijay Singh or Davis Love III or Thomas Bjorn of Denmark, the four world-class talents who, coming down the stretch, were in excellent position to win the claret jug on Sunday at Royal St. George's Golf Club, on the English Channel.
Or you could be Ben Curtis, the guy who won.
Ben Curtis is a 26-year-old golfer who still lives part of the time with his parents in a brick farmhouse built in 1829 on Main Street in Ostrander, Ohio (pop. 405), and who learned to play on the rich soil of the course his maternal grandfather constructed 30 years ago, when he decided to convert his pig farm into a muni. Ben Curtis is a self-taught, self-coached, no-nonsense professional, narrower in the shoulders than in the waist, with a 1950s-style Buckeye buzz cut, golf shirts you could buy at Marshalls and rumpled cotton khakis. He is a slightly built man who a year ago was playing on the Hooters Tour and who qualified for the British Open only by way of his 13th-place finish at the Western Open in Chicago earlier this month, in the 15th PGA Tour event of his life. The winner of the British Open is a man who in May missed the cut at the Memorial tournament—played in Dublin, Ohio, 15 miles from Ostrander—his game all fouled up by the pressure of having scores of friends and family following him.
Meet Ben Curtis, your new champion golfer for the year, class of 2001 at Kent State, where he met his fianc�e, Candace Beatty. In her sensible sneakers and mid-length denim skirt and pink blouse, she climbed up and down the baked dunes of St. George's on Sunday and brought the tips of her fingers to her mouth when a well-endowed female streaker raced across the 18th hole during the awards ceremony. Her man did her proud. Curtis barely glanced at the naked lady. More to the point, he finished a shot ahead of Singh and Bjorn and two shots ahead of Love and Woods. He was the only golfer to play the 72 holes on the fiendishly difficult golf course below par, which he bettered by a single shot on rounds of 72, 72, 70 and 69.
He did it, said his Sunday playing partner, Phillip Price, the Welsh Ryder Cup player, by doing many things right and almost nothing wrong. Curtis was one of 11 players who didn't make worse than bogey on any hole in the championship. "It's not a glamorous game he plays," Price said after the tournament. "But he's in play, he putts beautifully and he has our three-quarter, under-the-wind shot as if he's been playing it all his life." Curtis has an unhurried rhythm with every club, most particularly the putter. He's a smart golfer, in the Jim Furyk mold: not overpowering, but a player who will most likely play hard courses well and struggle in the weeks when he has to shoot 25 under to win.
He became the first golfer to win the first major tournament in which he played since Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open. His win combines the best elements of John Daly's wild-thing victory at the 1991 PGA Championship, which Long John got into as the ninth alternate, and Jack Fleck's everyman victory at the 1955 U.S. Open, in which the club pro defeated Hogan in a playoff.
Back in Ostrander, in the modest Mill Creek Golf Club clubhouse, the great moment was almost missed by Curtis's family and friends. The gang was all there, gathered around the TV to watch Ben play in, when the satellite reception was suddenly lost. The screen frequently froze. The golfer's father, Bob, the Mill Creek superintendent, and mother, Janice, a manager of the course, resorted to following their son on a website.
Regardless, they could picture his face. It doesn't change. "Ben doesn't show emotion and he doesn't say a whole lot," the father was saying on Sunday, with the game still on. "Right now I'm thinking, He's been playing decent, but where does this come from? I mean, he's ranked 396 in the world. With Ben, it's always where he's playing next and how much does he have to earn to keep his card." With his win Curtis now is ranked No. 35 in the world and has a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour. He's set. For Singh and Bjorn and Woods and Love, last week was about leaving a mark on the game. Curtis had more at stake. He was trying to find a home in golf.
The winner, really, should have been Bjorn or Woods, who often seemed subdued and joyless last week. Tiger lives for winning majors, and he hasn't won one for all of 13 months now, since the 2002 U.S. Open. Call it a slump at your own peril, but it is true that guys are no longer hiking in when his name is heading north on the leader board.
The great man and the great Dane lost shots on Thursday that they spent three days trying to get back. But once a shot is lost, it's on the ledger forever. On Thursday morning, when it was wet and blowy, Woods sent his opening tee shot right of the first fairway, into snarling, spongy, yard-high rough. Woods and the small army with him never found the ball, and it cost him two shots. Of course, Woods being Woods, he clawed his way back into the championship. Much later, a spectator claimed to have recovered Woods's inaugural ball. The two strokes, of course, could not be recovered. They were spent.